Writing vs. Editing

Lately, I have found my conversations with authors obsessively returning to the difficulty of establishing a “writing moment”. It’s my obsessiveness that is work here, not theirs, to be sure. I’ve come to realize that almost all of my advice about composition presumes that the writer is working in a particular way. If the writer won’t work in that way, my advice won’t work for them either.

Imagine a piano teacher who trying to teach a student how to improvise. Presumably, the teacher will encourage the student to practice simple forms without sheet music. Now, suppose the student insists on writing all the “lessons” down in musical notation and then goes home and practices exclusively from the sheet music. The teacher would get increasingly frustrated because the student is refusing to have a very relevant experience. Indeed, the student is refusing to DO the very thing that the student is trying to get better at. That’s a profound contradiction.

I feel a bit like this when working with writers. Without quite knowing it, they come to me for advice on their editing, not their writing. They want rules of grammar for their sentences and content guidelines for the various parts of their paper. They want me to help them improve their product, not their process. They are understandably impatient when I tell them to sit down and write a paragraph for eighteen or twenty-seven minutes about something they know. “But I’ve already written hundreds of pages of paragraphs!” they exclaim. “Just help me fix them!”

But it really is true that I can’t help them if they aren’t working in formal writing moments. They have to decide the day before what they want to say. And then they have compose a a paragraph the next day during a predetermined amount of minutes. This is what I can help them become better at. That is to say, I can help them become better writers.

(I just realized I’m going to need to say much more about this. The importance of editing has long been a dogma of writing instruction. It’s true in the sense that all good writing requires re-writing. But I think we have to push back against the idea that it requires a lot of obsessive worrying and editing and “polishing”. The important thing is confidently getting your thoughts down on the page in the first place.)

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